HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a significant shift, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell says the city must live between "revenue boundaries" and should focus on shortening the rail route so that it ends at Middle Street rather than Ala Moana Center.
The statements Thursday at a Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board meeting are a turnabout for Caldwell, who just two days ago said he wouldn't "cut and run" from building out the full, 20-mile project and has previously said proposals to shorten the rail route by five miles could threaten jobs, affordable housing and rail's ridership.
Speaking to HART's board in a surprise visit Thursday, Caldwell said the city needs to "focus for now on how we get to Middle Street."
"I want to emphasize that I am totally committed to going further. But let's focus on what we can do with the money we have. Let's do a good job for the first 15 miles," he said.
Caldwell said the projected cost for the planned route to Ala Moana Center would be $8.3 billion, considerably more than the $6.8 billion the city can afford. (The City Council also capped spending on rail at that amount.)
Shortening the route, he said, doesn't preclude the city from adding onto the project later as more funds become available.
In a subsequent news release, Caldwell said he still supports building the full 20 miles of rail to Ala Moana Center.
"I am totally committed to getting to Ala Moana and ultimately to UH Manoa; that is ideally where rail should be going and how we will get to optimal ridership" he said. "I wish we could continue all the way to Ala Moana now, but that is a challenge that cannot be addressed until additional funding becomes available."
Opinions on shorter route differ
The shortened route is one of a number of options floated by HART to contain the growing cost of the project, and has generated both support and strong opposition.
Supporters of ending the route at Middle Street say the project would still be worthwhile to riders, and that further additions could be handled later.
But opponents say ending rail before it gets to Ala Moana Center would hurt ridership -- leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for operating costs -- and would threaten future development.
Several residents Hawaii News Now interviewed Thursday said stopping rail at Middle Street just doesn't make sense.
"Middle Street is kind of where all the traffic starts, so if you're not gonna go beyond that, I don't know how much it's actually going to alleviate," said Kaimuki resident Jordana Ferreira.
Waikiki resident Eric Hayes agreed.
"I don't think it's worth the money that they've spent to just go to Middle Street," he said.
A reversal on rail?
Just two days ago, on Hawaii News Now's Sunrise, Caldwell reiterated his support for building the full rail route.
"I believe we should work to the goal of building the full 20 miles and 21 stations -- maybe defer some of them. Defer, not eliminate. And we continue to look for sources of revenue," he said.
"We shouldn't cut and run. This project is just too darn important. It's something that we've been fighting for for 40 years here. It's about transportation equality, it's about social justice. It's about giving people an alternative to traffic gridlock."
Caldwell's new position comes amid skyrocketing costs for the project, and as rail emerges as an election issue.
HART Board Chair, Colleen Hanabusa says it seems to be the best option.
"I think it's a matter of how much money we have and what can we do. So when you look at the alternatives, right now it is the alternative that makes the most sense," Hanabusa said.
While it makes the most sense to the chairperson, HART CEO, Dan Grabauskas would still rather have the route go as planned.
"Personally, I'm disappointed. I think we all would like to see, and I heard this from the mayor and I read this from the letter of the city council chair, we would all like to get the full 20 miles, 21 stations, the full system that was promised. Problem is right now is that our resources are falling short," said HART CEO Dan Grabauskas.
Grabauskas said they need to calculate the numbers regarding costs and ridership implications.
On Thursday, his opponents in the upcoming election were quick to pounce on what they call inconsistencies on rail.
Former Congressman Charles Djou, who is running against Caldwell in the mayoral election and has called for the project to stop at Middle Street, said the mayor's statements Thursday amount to "flip-flopping."
"Kirk Caldwell -- again and again and again -- says one thing and does another. He promised to build rail on-time and on budget. It is now years behind schedule, billions of dollars over-budget," Djou said.
Former Mayor Peter Carlisle, who's also running against Caldwell, said cutting the project short won't serve anyone.
"Halfway and not to the extent that people were promised is disingenuous," he said.
Carlisle added he would extend the general excise tax again to finish the project as it was intended.
"The public was given a promise that they would have a rail system that would go all the way to the (Hawaii) Convention Center," he said. "I wouldn't panic. I'd stick to the plan."
Federal pressure mounts
The city is under pressure to submit a project recovery plan to the federal government by August 7. The plan must address the discrepancy between what the full project would cost and the amount of money the city has.
After Caldwell's comments Thursday, HART board member Michael Formby said he supports the plan to end the route at Middle Street.
"It's clearly within our plans," he said.
He added terminating the route at Middle Street would affect bus ridership and changes to the terminal may be necessary.
The HART board will hold a public hearing to get community input. They will then come up with a recommendation and send it to the city council. City Council will then pass a resolution either adopting it or not and send that to HART staff to negotiate with the Federal Transit Administration.
Grabauskas said they have to meet the FTA's standards in order to keep all the federal money for the project. The feds have the final say.